Cyprus appears headed for a showdown with Turkey over Nicosia's plans to begin oil and gas exploration in the east Mediterranean.  Nathan Morley reports for VOA from Nicosia that Cyprus wants to issue exploration permits for 60,000 square kilometers of seabed near the island later this year.

According to the Greek-led government of Cyprus, in Nicosia, early data indicates there are oil and gas deposits in a sea area separating the island from Egypt to its south and Lebanon to its east.  The government proposes opening 11 areas for exploration, and it launched a bidding process in February for exploration rights to the area. Bids have to be filed by August 16, with permits being issued by the end of this year. 

Cyprus Foreign Minister Kozakou Marcoullis says there is interest from international companies in her government's tender.

"We would be very glad even if we had four or five or six interested companies, this is just the beginning," Marcoullis said. "Defiantly there is oil, otherwise we would not have gone through this whole procedure.  I think this is why there is already a lot of interest from a number of countries and companies that will be participating with this tender."

But tensions in the region could intensify if the government of the divided island proceeds with plans to drill.  Breakway Turkish Cypriots in northern Cyprus have strongly objected to the move and say that any natural reserves discovered belong to both sides.  

Ankara has also stepped up its campaign to halt the process with a direct appeal to U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon.

Cyprus Commerce Minister Antonis Michaelides says the Nicosia government will not give in to Turkey's threats because its position is grounded in law.

He says there is a difference between a threat and its implementation, which would violate the sovereign rights of a country.

Responding to the Greek-Cypriot move, the state-owned Turkish Petroleum Company has invited bids for oil and natural gas exploration in the eastern Mediterranean, off the northern coast of Cyprus. 

Many analysts, including James Kerr Lindsay from Kingston University in London, predict a cooling of the already frosty relations between the two communities on Cyprus. 

"We have seen a continued ramping up of the rhetoric from the Turkish Cypriots and Turkey, both of which are arguing that in one way or another they should both have some sort of take on this," he said. "Obviously the Turkish Cypriots are making the case that as partners in the Republic of Cyprus, as co-owners, if you like, of the island of Cyprus; they have a right to these reserves.  There has been a cooling down in relations, and this really does pose the threat of turning relations extremely frosty."

The Greek-Cypriot administration signed agreements with Egypt in 2005 and Lebanon in early January this year delineating their sea boundaries in the eastern Mediterranean to facilitate future underwater oil and gas exploration.  

Foreign Minister Marcoullis also pointed out that what he called Turkey's posturing would not help its efforts to join the European Union.

"This behavior of course is not very much compatible with the behavior of a candidate country for accession to the European Union," he said. "Probably they have not realized that the European Union consists of 27 member states, which is a problem."

Cyprus joined the European Union in 2004, but has been divided since 1974 when Turkish troops invaded the island in response to a coup in Nicosia backed by the Greek military government then in power in Athens. The self-proclaimed Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus is only recognized by Turkey.

Attempts to re-unite the island have been at a standstill for three years, since a U.N.-backed unification referendum was rejected by Greek Cypriots in the south, but accepted by Turkish Cypriots in the north.